Life Science New lab will refine bushfire responses

New lab will refine bushfire responses

CSIRO bushfire
The new lab in Canberra will allow researchers to light and study fires in a safe environment. Photo: AAP
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A new bushfire lab in Canberra will help firefighters deal with Australia’s escalating bushfire threat.

The CSIRO lab unveiled this week is home to a 29-metre long Pyrotron — an artificial tunnel-like environment where researchers can light fires to better understand how they behave under different conditions.

The data will then be used to refine predictive models authorities use during events like the devastating Black Summer blazes of 2019 and 2020.

The $2.1 million facility also boasts a vertical wind tunnel to study the physics of spot fires, which are responsible for the loss of most homes in Australia.

The lab will build on about 70 years of CSIRO bushfire research that has historically relied on experimental fires lit in natural bush settings.

Such field experiments are not without risk and are impossible when fire conditions are at their most dangerous.

The Pyrotron provides a safe solution to test any combination of variables including wind speed, fuel type and load, and moisture content to determine what fires will do.

“We certainly have had very limited capability to conduct experimental fires under extreme conditions,” bushfire behaviour expert Andrew Sullivan says.

“Nobody in their right mind is going to give us the go-ahead to light a fire on a Black Saturday type day.

“This lab means we’ll be able to study particular aspects of fire behaviour under the extreme conditions that are more likely to occur under climate change.”

ACT Rural Fire Service chief Rohan Scott says the lab is a bit like having a crystal ball.

“By using the data collected by the Pyrotron, our prediction tools become more accurate,” he says.

And that means better decision making about where firefighters can safely go, what fire fighting strategies to use, and also improved emergency warnings for communities.

The lab is located at the CSIRO Black Mountain campus in Canberra.